Liberated Indian women scavengers walk the ramp at UN

July 3rd, 2008 - 8:09 pm ICT by IANS  

New York, July 3 (IANS) It was a proud and unthinkable moment for about two score women scavengers from remote parts of India who staged a catwalk with prominent fashion models in front of the representatives of over 150 countries at the United Nations headquarters here Wednesday. The group of 36 former sanitation workers, with names like Usha Chamour and Sushila Chauhan, from Alwar in Rajasthan, who now hold other respectable jobs, thanks to a rehabilitation programme run by the Indian NGO Sulabh International, also participated in a series of events organised at the UN to mark the International Year of Sanitation 2008.

“On display at the show were traditional couture and silhouettes. The clothes for the fashion models were stitched by these women. The 10 models included Indrani Dasgupta, Aryan Vaid, Tapur and Tupur Chatterjee sisters and Sharad Kapur in a show choreographed by Marc Robinson,” a spokesperson for the event told IANS.

The women were invited to New York by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs to showcase to other NGOs how determination can help to uplift the most suppressed women.

Their presence at the world body also highlighted that the basic sanitation facility still eludes millions in India and thousands of low caste women are in the trade of cleaning human excreta from open-air (non-septic) toilets, that too for a pittance.

Addressing dignitaries including Vijay Nambiar, Indian chief of staff of the UN secretary-general, gathered to witness the unique event, Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International, said: “This is for the first time that these people are being brought to the forefront. This is to spread a message to the entire world that they are not untouchables, they too have a life.”

Sulabh International, with a nationwide network of modern public toilets in India, has helped transform the lives of hundred of women in India through sustainable programmes that bring them livelihoods other than scavenging such as embroidery and making noodles and pickles.

Pathak said that the UN show was a symbol of the liberation of a century old scavenging practice in India. He observed that Mahatma Gandhi wanted to eradicate the practice and bring scavengers to the national mainstream and this UN honour to the 36 former scavengers was fulfillment of his dream.

Sulabh has developed two technologies, one for individual households and the other for public toilets, so that the practice of manual cleaning of excreta is dispensed with. “After relieving scavengers from the demeaning practice, we have imparted to them education and vocational training, to enable them becoming self-employed,” Dr.Pathak said in his speech.

For these 36 women from the lowest strata of society, it was a long journey from being scavengers carrying night soil in a small town like Alwar to a chance to walk on the ramp and rub shoulders with celebrities in New York

As recently as four years ago, these downtrodden women were engaged in the traditional family practice of cleaning night soil in their localities. They were helped in giving up their work by a vocational training centre, Nai Disha (new direction), an initiative of the Sulabh Sanitation movement in Alwar. Each one of them is now an active member of a group to motivate her scavenging sisters to resign the lives of drudgery and humiliation.

A book containing the success story of these liberated women titled “The Princesses of Alwar” was released by UN officials at the Wednesday event.

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